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Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones

Reviewed by Mitch Carnell – ethicsdaily.com – April 15, 2019

“God Will Take Care of You” was a very popular hymn when I was growing up.
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, makes it clear this is not the case in her new book, “Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World.”
God empowers us to take care of ourselves, she says, in this theological reflection that is as true as the author can make it at the time of its writing.
She is a product of Oklahoma and its broad sweeping plains, burdened by the racist history of the state and especially that of her family – though her father breaks that mold.
Her own struggles with racism play out in a teenage fit of disappointment and anger. She wrestles with her grandfather’s not-so-subtle sexual abuse.
Jones is also a product of the teachings of Calvin, Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Barth and Tillich and later of feminist theologians. She is steeped in the doctrines of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is no doubt that she belongs at the helm of the Union Theological Seminary. They are blessed to have her and so are we.
Her story is so compelling that it is difficult to put the book down. We get to watch as she takes what she experienced in India and processes those experiences to weave her own spiritual formation. She learns quickly from other cultures and other faith traditions.
The one major flaw is that in the story of Freddy (a boyfriend of Jones during high school who dropped out of school), she substitutes what she wishes were the truth for the real truth.
She mistakes raging teenage hormones for true love and then enshrines that image in her brain. She attributes Freddy’s death to his condition of poverty.
In reality, Freddy had all the elements he needed to escape poverty: a motorcycle, intelligence, talent, work, money and the role model of Serene and her family. He made a conscious choice to remain stuck.
She says that it was Freddy’s death that sent her into the study of theology. It was more likely the influence of her father because her younger sister also became a minister.
Despite this shortcoming, her telling the story of Freddy is exquisite and sets the pattern for an unrelenting search for meaning.
Jones also reflects on her marriage, which seems like it never stood a chance of success.
Yet, her love for her daughter and what being a mother birthed in her is truly inspirational.
Her oneness of spirit with her daughter is a case study in mother-daughter relationships.
Her struggles with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and how she works through her hatred of Timothy McVeigh to come out of that struggle on the side of being opposed to the death penalty is a lesson in transformation for us all.
As much as Jones loves and respects her theologian father, she neither respects nor adores her mother. who was a bitter, harsh, mean person.
I suspect the mother was sicker for a much longer period of time than anyone suspected. She was brutal in the verbal abuse of her brilliant daughter and later she almost destroyed her adoring husband.
It is against this harsh reality that Jones’ theology is tested and reforms.
Jones comes to the conclusion that we are all held in God’s love. That the space between us and the breath that flows through us and unites us is God’s grace. We are all a part of God and that God is a part of us.
“It also allows us to see God not as another object, distinct from us, but as the air, the flow, the spirit, the life force that moves between us and through us,” she writes.
Her father’s mantra is referenced often, “We are all children of light and children of darkness. We are all children of the same God.”
The concluding lines of the book carry her message: “Love has become a trifling word, but it still, as a theological concept, has the power to redeem if we can grasp that it exists within and yet comes from beyond desire, language, need and want. That is the simple reason, really, why we call that love ‘grace’.”
My summary is found in her words, “Grace is older than sin.”

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Why all Christians, not just Baptists, are indebted to Glenn Hinson*

DOUG WEAVER | APRIL 4, 2019 Baptistsnewsglobal.com

During the last weekend of March, Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted a celebration honoring the life and work of E. Glenn Hinson, longtime professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who later taught at Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

With Hinson in the audience, Loyd Allen, Raymond Bailey, Alan Culpepper, Bill Leonard, Karen Smith and Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants Tessieri, who had been Hinson’s students and faculty colleagues, gave lectures and described Hinson’s influence on their scholarship. During worship at Crescent Hill on Sunday, Elizabeth Hinson-Hastey included in her sermon insights on Hinson from her unique perspective as his daughter.

In many ways, the weekend was a reunion of the “old Southern Seminary” – a band of alumni, most of whom graduated before the Albert Mohler era, celebrating life beyond their exile of decades past. It was a gift to all who were there.

After serving as moderator for Crescent Hill’s William M. Johnson Lecture Series, I believe the event merits a postscript since the Hinson legacy celebrated in Kentucky literally reaches around the globe. Here are four of the many gifts Hinson has bequeathed to Baptists and the larger Christian community.

The gift of ecumenism and recognition that we are part of a larger Christian story.
In decades past (and still today), many students arrived on campuses with little knowledge of Christian history. If they knew anything about their Baptist story, it was probably a triumphalistic version and they still knew little or next to nothing about the broader traditions of the faith. It is the legacy of Glenn Hinson that Baptists became more aware of the larger Christian story. He was unique among Baptists, a patristics scholar, and while he added other things to his scholarly repertoire, he never ceased to introduce students to early Christianity.

“Out of his love for the whole history of the church, Hinson embodied ecumenical relationships.”

Out of his love for the whole history of the church, Hinson embodied ecumenical relationships. If you went to seminary and primarily knew and loved only Baptists, you left knowing and loving the church universal. (Who else but Hinson would send me to St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana to take a class on early Christianity with Father Ephraim?)

In his autobiography, Hinson has a subheading: “Catho-Baptist or Bapto-Catholic.” My personal assessment is that Hinson has always been a catholic Baptist, one who loved being Baptist, who affirmed vibrant personal faith, but who also heard the broader call of catholicity and was not afraid to teach his students about Catholic monks or Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. He has been a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

Hinson describes his identity in even broader terms. He asserts that he is a “Bapto-Quakero-Methodo-Presbytero-Lutherano-Episcopo-Catholic!” And so he is. And his gift of ecumenism to Baptists is a gift that keeps giving.

The gift of Baptist voluntarism and Baptist dissent.
Hinson’s gift of ecumenism has never overshadowed his role as a committed Baptist. Throughout his six decades of teaching and writing, fundamentalist Baptists attacked him unceasingly, and he surely found more freedom, appreciation and rest in ecumenical environments. Yet Hinson never let go of Baptist identity, even as he modeled how someone formed by their own experience and tradition could also be a committed ecumenist. He argued that the essence of Baptist life is voluntarism. (His unwavering emphasis on voluntary faith and soul liberty stood in direct contrast to the coercive conformity of many of his detractors.) He warned Baptists that they had lost their way and had become “corporation Baptists” with little vibrant personal faith or authentic community. He understands Baptists, and his focus on voluntary faith is a gift that keeps giving.

For his colleagues and students, Hinson embodied and modeled Baptist dissent. He was the recipient of fundamentalist blow after blow (how many times was he asked if Adam and Eve were real people?), but he remained faithful and taught us that dissent was an act of faithfulness. Often his dissent was done with sly humor. After repeatedly being charged with universalist tendencies, he once facetiously remarked that he was inclined to such a position, but ultimately universalism failed because fundamentalists were surely going to hell. In this day and age, faithful dissent is a gift of Baptist DNA that must keep giving.

The gift of spirituality; the practice of the presence of God.
Many Baptists owe their introduction to the topic of spirituality and the classic literature of Christian devotion through the classes and writings of Glenn Hinson. In 1980, I was a member of the first class that Hinson taught on prayer. Seminarians flocked to his class on the Christian devotional classics. Students learned about Thomas Merton and the Abbey of Gethsemane because of Hinson’s friendship with his “brother” Merton. Students built their spirituality library with Hinson’s books, including A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle (1974), Doubleday Devotional Classics (1978) and The Reaffirmation of Prayer (1979).

“Hinson simply embodied that compelling phrase of Brother Lawrence, ‘to practice the presence of God.’”

For his students, Hinson simply embodied that compelling phrase of Brother Lawrence, “to practice the presence of God.” It was no exaggeration and with a bit of holy intimidation that we said, “When Dr. Hinson prays, you know God is there.” And we really weren’t joking when we thought Hinson had mystical visions of what God wanted (defined another way as powerful prayer).

I’ll never forget hearing some of my students in the late 1980s spout off a list of Baptist “heretics,” a list of names no doubt given to them by their pastors to warn them of liberalism in their classes. When I heard Hinson’s name blurted out by more than one naïve, young fundamentalist, I often responded with something like this: “Do you know him? Did you know he took the time to call a student when his father died? Have you heard him pray? Have you seen him in communion with God, practicing the presence of God? (Of course that last phrase flipped their minds.) If you blindly call Glenn Hinson a heretic, you have no idea of whom you speak.”

Spirituality and the need for spiritual formation, even of clergy – sharing the energizing love of God to all of his students – is a gift that keeps on giving.

The gift of identity as scholar, minister and teacher.
Last, but surely not least, Glenn Hinson knows who God called him to be. Throughout his long and venerable career, he never forgot who he was. He modeled what it means to be called to a ministry of teaching and scholarship. His ecumenism, Baptist dissent and practice of the presence of God were consistently lived out in the classroom. He wrote for both the academy and the church – a feat attempted less and less in contemporary higher education.

His grasp of subjects was deep and wide. He knew intimately the classics of Christian devotion such as Catholic Thomas Merton, Quaker Douglas Steere and Baptist John Bunyan, to name but three. Who else in Baptist life could write on ecumenism, patristics, Baptist history, spirituality/spiritual formation/spiritual leadership for ministry, ecclesiology, biblical exegesis, peacemaking and worship in scholarly and popular publications?

“He wrote for both the academy and the church – a feat attempted less and less in contemporary higher education.”

And who else was known for lecturing on all these topics (and more) in churches and educational institutions as well as conferences sponsored by a variety of religious bodies? As the Baptist Renaissance Man, Hinson points to the need of lifelong, broad and liberating learning and of devotion to the ministry of teaching.

Hinson is a scholar/teacher, but he has never lost sight of the practical needs of ministry. That has been his identity. The test questions he asked in “Introduction to Church History” demanded rigorous thinking and quality content; but they also revealed the practical application of Christian history to local church situations (something most churches are not prone to see). For example, I recall this test question: “You’re a minister in _____ position, and one of your church members asks you about _____. Answer them based on your knowledge of this issue in church history.” I copied this format when I started asking test questions (as did others who studied with him). I must admit, however, that I never quite got the answer he once received, “You have asked a very good question, Professor. I want to give you a very thoughtful answer. So let me do some research and let’s meet again next week to discuss it.”

Ecumenical and Baptist? Appreciation and commitment to the church worldwide, past and present? Realize the need for lifelong commitment to spiritual formation? Recognize that scholarship that meets the demands of the academy must also have a role in the church? Know that being Baptist embodies voluntary faith and dissent at its core?

To say that Baptists and other people of faith are “indebted” to E. Glenn Hinson is an understatement.

Editor’s note: The 2019 William M. Johnson lectures will be published by the American Baptist Quarterly. For information about pre-ordering a copy, contact the American Baptist Historical Society.

*Glenn Hinson lectured at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. He is a scholar’s scholar and friend.

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Go into the world and ‘speak God,’ Merritt tells CBF Advocacy conference|

| MARCH 21, 2019 – BaptistNewsGlobal.com – By Blake Tommey

“The world needs you to speak ‘God,’ especially in this moment,” Jonathan Merritt, award-winning writer on religion and culture, said at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual Advocacy in Action conference on March 14 in New York City.

Jonathan Merritt speaks at 2019 CBF Advocacy in Action conference.

“Do you believe in God?” Merritt continued. “That is, do you love God and have you taken a step of faith? Then that spark should start a fire on your lips. Even though ‘speaking God’ is in massive decline in America, all is not lost. I believe we can revive the vocabulary of faith and that’s my prayer for each of you—that you’ll become courageous, vulnerable, passionate God-speakers again.”

Advocacy in Action, traditionally held each year in Washington D.C., kicked off March 11 at host Metro Baptist Church, where more than 60 participants from across the Fellowship engaged the work of advocacy and the urban church. Throughout the four-day conference, participants visited the United Nations, the historic Riverside Church, Tenement Museum and learned about the work of immigration advocacy, religious liberty and racial justice from area Baptist pastors, CBF field personnel and community and government leaders on homelessness and hunger. Participants also visited Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, a congregation founded by abolitionist leader Henry Ward Beecher and a central stop on the Underground Railroad.

Merritt, a resident of Brooklyn, joined the participants for their final day of conversations at MBC, where he followed a panel on urban hunger with a plea to reclaim overt faith language. Advocacy, in the name of a loving God, takes place in our everyday speech and conversation, Merritt said. The problem is, he added, hateful and destructive faith language dominates the conversation because moderates and progressives have shied away from talking openly about faith.

“Believers like you and me stop speaking God because we don’t like what these words have come to mean and the way they’ve been used,” said Merritt, whose latest book is titled Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them. “But when we stay silent, all those people who are causing the problem get to hog the microphone.” Too many problematic voices—televangelists preaching for profit, politicians spreading xenophobia and bigotry or pastors peddling condemnation—are setting the tone for Christianity with their words, Merritt explained. “They dominate the conversation because we’ve stopped speaking God.”

In fact, he said, more than one-fifth of Americans admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the last year, and only seven percent say they talk about spiritual matters about once a week. That’s surprising, Merritt explained, because the vast majority of Americans say they believe but do not speak about their faith. As for practicing Christians who attend church regularly, he added, only 13 percent are having spiritual conversations about once a week.

But how does the church find its voice again? How do we regain confidence in the language and vocabulary of faith? First, Merritt explained, Jesus followers must cultivate the courage it takes to have spiritual conversations, even with strangers on the subway or in the workplace. With courage, he said, the church can push past the skepticism and cynicism that typically dominates the public sphere, especially in urban settings like New York City.

Second, he added, Jesus followers must cultivate the vulnerability necessary to make faith language authentic and generous.

“To speak God doesn’t mean to preach at people,” Merritt said. “It means opening your heart and your spirit to share what is inside, to discuss your doubts and your darkness, your struggles and your sorrow. And that takes vulnerability. What are you doing in your life—this month, this week—to nurture vulnerability? You’ll need it to speak God.”

Finally, Merritt charged the church with developing the passion it takes to reclaim faith language. Instead of falling back on cognitive belief statements—a not-so-helpful result of the Enlightenment—Jesus followers must rekindle a genuine love and passion for God, Jesus and the spiritual life, he said. When you truly love something, Merritt explained, you will naturally speak openly about it.

“You know something in your head, but you believe something in your heart,” he said. “In fact, perhaps the best synonym for the ancient word ‘to believe’ is the word for ‘to belove,’ not ‘to know.’ Paul says that we fall in love with God, Jesus and the spiritual life, and that begins to bubble up and spill out of our mouths. So, what are you doing to stoke your love of God and spirituality each day? By nurturing your passion for God, you’ll find that it becomes easier for you to speak God again.”

Ultimately, the story of God’s action in the world is the story of the power of words, Merritt said. With words, God brought life to all creation and endowed humanity with God’s own image. With words, Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and release to the captive. Jesus’ last commandment was to go into the world and “speak God,” he added. As today’s religious, political and social tumult continues, Merritt explained, the church has an opportunity to reclaim this rich tradition of words and allow faith language to instill grace and hope once again.

Watch a bonus video interview with Jonathan Merritt courtesy of CBF-partner EthicsDaily.com.

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Why Rev. Amy Butler is talking politics, sin and loss this Lent March 12, 20199 Min ReadTh

March 12, 2019 The Rev. Amy Butler preaches at The Riverside Church in New York. Photo courtesy of Riverside Church – Jack Jenkins – Share This! (RNS)

During this year’s season of Lent — a time when Christians commemorate the biblical story of Jesus Christ fasting in the desert for 40 days — Riverside Church, a historically liberal congregation in New York City, is focusing on a theme of sin and loss. Riverside’s head pastor, the Rev. Amy Butler, spoke recently with Religion News Service to explain why the influential church is honing in on topics she says progressive Christians sometimes gloss over, and why she hopes examining ancient scriptural stories about sin and loss can speak to the modern-day challenges facing Americans in general and Christians in particular.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to offer a series at your church about sin and loss?
Riverside is a very progressive Protestant congregation, and progressives are notoriously reticent to speak about sin. Because of that, we often cede responsibility for that kind of conversation, theological dialogue and exploration to our conservative brothers and sisters.

I think that’s a mistake.

So we’re going to take the season of Lent, which is a time of the church year for penitence and repentance, and see if we can’t reclaim some of the language for sin.

I’ll be defining it as separation from God and from each other — the things we do and the systems that we participate in that hurt other people, that diminish our relationship with God and with each other, that harm our world and our fellow human beings. We’re going to cover all of that in six weeks.

What do you think is distinct about the way your congregation is going to engage with sin compared to how your “conservative brothers and sisters” might approach the same question?
I’m going to try to steer us away from a transactional understanding of sin. I grew up in a conservative evangelical background, so I understood growing up — as I think many of my conservative friends do — that God was the judge and there’s a certain balance sheet. You get points for this, a point for that — I’ve been watching “The Good Place” — and the way things balance out in the end.

I just don’t think that we live in a world with that much control over the divine. I think that our lives are formed and ordered by the relationships that we build and nurture both with God and with each other. And I think taking a good, hard look at the things that impact and impede those relationships is where I really want to go. That’s going to be a distinction between, you know, “If you dance or drink, you get certain demerits, and then if you bring your grandmother flowers, you get more (positive points).”

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend in Aug. 2014. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

You said you’re not just tying sin to a personal action or a personal offense, but also systems and communities. Are you talking about systemic or communal sin?
Yes. And you know, I think it’s a very dangerous bifurcation when we decide that sin is either individual or systemic. This is generalizing, of course, but: (the idea that if) every sin is individual, so that means we don’t look at things like racism. Or that if everything is systemic, that we don’t look at our own anger, our own pride.

We have to find some way to look at both because they both impact our daily lives.

Why do you think progressive Christian communities have shied away from explicit conversations about sin?
I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason, somewhere along the line, the narrative was co-opted by a much more conservative storyline. Because the general perception of the concept of sin is what we see on TV, or when we hear about hateful protesters at abortion clinics — well, we don’t want to be associated with that.

So we just prefer to step away from the conversation.

The other trap that progressives fall into all the time is we think that claiming our own banners of belief is somehow … oppressive to other people, which is flatly untrue.

We’re not doing the world any service if we can’t fully express what it is we say we believe and what standards and convictions animate our work in the world. So it may be a little provocative for my congregation — and I always like to push them a little bit. But I really want to bring sin (to) the fore this year, give us an opportunity to reclaim the language around it and have some honest conversations.

You mentioned racism as one example of sin. Are there other examples that you plan to lift up?
We’re telling the stories of the Book of Genesis, which are story after story of sin, right? I’m trying to take some of the stories that we don’t normally tell in a pulpit and taking a different look at them. We’re telling the story of Noah. We’re telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are stories that either people don’t know, or they know in very surface-y ways. And as we look at each of these stories, we’re trying to look at what the sin is in the story and then what is lost.

So sins like pride and violence and corruption and othering and lack of hospitality. And then the things that we lose: intimacy with God and with each other, innocence, community, things to sustain life. And in those broader categories, surely there are things that are going to come up — systems that hurt and oppress. Racism is one of them. Misogyny, sexism — I mean all this stuff about institutions that hurt people.

This Lent is (also) going to be a powerful time of reckoning for the institutional church. For example: the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church.

But also, I don’t want to let our progressive selves off easy now, holding sin out at arm’s length. Let’s look a little closer and see where these sins are coming to be in our own lives, in our relationships with each other, even in our own community here at Riverside.

You also mentioned that loss is a part of this project. Can you unpack that some more?
I wanted to reframe (this topic) because so many times when we talk about sin, we talk about sin and punishment. I don’t want to talk about sin and punishment. I want to talk about sin and loss, because what really happens as the effect of sin is the loss. It’s not punishment, which (brings) along with it shame that further alienates us from each other and from the possibility of redemption.

But if we talk about it in terms of loss, then I think it gives us more of a handhold for finding our way back to reconciliation. When we participate in sinful systems and sinful actions we are losing trust, relationship, accountability, all of these things that build this up and make our better community and better relationships.

The Rev. Amy Butler of The Riverside Church in New York. Courtesy photo

You represent a historic progressive congregation whose messages can carry a lot of weight among progressive and liberal Christians. Is there some part of this that speaks to the rest of liberal and progressive Christianity to inform their spiritual life in this specific political moment of 2019?
Oh, there’s so much to say.

One thing I said often after the 2016 presidential election was that my immediate personal spiritual response was a deep sense of conviction that I needed to repent. That’s a very uncomfortable word for us progressive Christians. But I think for so long — particularly under the Obama administration — we had just sort of been like, “Oh, you know, everything’s fine. There are a few bad things, but in general, society’s moving toward a more just place.”

What we have learned is that we weren’t speaking out enough before, that we hadn’t separated enough our call to be gospel people from the systems of our government that often oppressed and harmed, even if we believed in the ideology of the ruling party.

I think repentance is a wonderful place for us to start as we think about how our actions are shaped moving forward in this moment.

Certainly, if the church doesn’t stand up and speak up and act in the way of Jesus, then I don’t know why the church continues to exist.

This is always a dangerous question that I ask a preacher: Do you think your congregation will be receptive to this message?
I expect people will be uncomfortable. I have one congregation member who says to me often, “You know, I come to church on Sunday morning, I get all uncomfortable. Then I go home and watch Joel Osteen and I feel better.”

Really?
Yes, yes.

Even at Riverside, we are guilty of wanting to be entertained or comforted. And I don’t think Jesus was really in the business of making us feel comfortable. I don’t think it’s my job to entertain people, but particularly during this season of Lent, this is a moment for us to really challenge ourselves to look hard at some very deep and hard places.

When we have national theological conversations about Lent, is there something that you think gets left out or glossed over or forgotten?
It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m advocating for us to take a good, hard look at individual sin. I think this year in particular, as Americans, we have an interesting opportunity to look at some of our institutional sin, because we’re seeing it on a national scale every single day.

Let’s look at what we’re doing around immigration policy, around violence, around government corruption. But then also, what about the institution of the church? Look at what just happened in the United Methodist Church. Look what’s going on in the Catholic Church.

All of our institutions have failed to reflect our highest aspirations for who we can be as a people of God or just as decent human beings.

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